The horror genre continues to redefine itself in the age of #MeToo and the 21st Century, rewriting old tropes, specifically the rape/revenge subgenre. I’m thinking of movies like M.F.A. (2017),Revenge, and to some extent, Promising Young Woman (2020). The latest is Violation, which released late last week on Shudder after its world premiere at Sundance earlier this year. The general premise is familiar for the subgenre. A young woman, Miriam (Madeleine Sims-Fewer), is raped by her sister’s husband. However, where the film goes from there is a wild, brutal affair, one that challenges expectations and also underscores the fallout and PTSD the protagonist endures after the rape and subsequent vengeance. Further, Violation makes a spectacle of the male, a reversal of standard horror rules.
Violation is a film I keep thinking about weeks after I first saw it and reviewed it for HorrOrigins (you can read the full review here). It’s another film that marks a change in the subgenre and an exciting future, filled with possibilities of what the genre can be when more women get behind the camera (the film was co-directed by Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli). Violation undoes traditional horror spectacle, while focusing mostly not on the blood and revenge, but rather the aftermath.
In honor of the wild success of Netflix’s “The Haunting of Bly Manor” and prior to that, “The Haunting of Hill House,” I teamed up with Laura Kemmerer, one of the founders of What Sleeps Beneath, to offer a Gothic reading list! We tried to offer a mix of well-known and lesser known authors, and if we chose familiar authors, we tried to pick works lesser known.
I wanted to share this interview that I did with Nora Unkel for Signal Horizon Magazine. Unkel directed the Shudder exclusive A Nightmare Wakes, a retelling of the Frankenstein creation story and Mary Shelley’s life. It’s the first film I can think of that places the 19th Century female author front and center of the Frankenstein story, including her turbulent relationship with Percy and the struggles she had as a female writer.
I wanted to share a few pieces that I’ve had published recently. The first is an article about Promising Young Woman, a film that I keep thinking about days after I’ve seen it, especially its haunting and (maybe?) problematic ending. The film stars Carey Mulligan as Cassandra, a med school drop-out who seeks vengeance against men from a traumatic event in her past. We’ve seen plenty of female revenge films prior, but there’s something about this film and Mulligan’s performance that stands out. My article for Signal Horizon explores toxic masculinity and trauma in the film. You can read it here.
Additionally, I wrote about one of my favorite films from last year, After Midnight, for Signal Horizon. You can read that article here. After Midnight is set to drop on Shudder in the coming weeks. Make sure to see it if you have that streaming service.
It’s a new year, and with that, the streaming service Shudder is dropping 11 new movies across 11 weeks. The first is Hunted, a wild take on Little Red Riding Hood directed and written by Vincent Paronnaud. The film has some stellar cinematography and imagery, but it doesn’t do anything new with the female revenge subgenre and pales in comparison to similar films like Revenge (2017) and The Nightingale (2019).
Eve (Lucie Debay) is a site manager who needs an escape from her overbearing boss, so she wanders into a seedy bar where she has to deal with an overly aggressive man who insists on buying her drink, most likely expecting sex in return. Eve shoots him down and is assisted by “the guy” (Arieh Worthalter), a misogynist who lures Eve into his car, and with the help of his accomplice (Ciaran O’Brien), kidnaps her. After an accident, Eve escapes into the woods and the rest of the film becomes a hunt and chase scenario.
The fairy tale concept works well. Fairy tales have always had a dark underbelly. Eve’s red winter coat aligns her even more with the Little Red Riding Hood character, but instead of being chased by a big bad wolf, she’s chased by two men. As the tag line of the film says, “The company of wolves is better than that of man.”
Debay gives a strong performance through and through. It’s a delight to see her channel her anger and become the hunter with the help of the woods. Worthalter makes for a good villain, a deplorable brute who gets off by watching sexist snuff films he recorded. The imagery and cinematography, including sweeping shots of the woods and close-ups of wolves and snakes, are another strength.
The film’s main issue is that it doesn’t do anything different with the female revenge subgenre and add to the conversation. We’ve seen this plot several times before, and while it’s always great to see women kicking ass against gross men, there’s nothing ground-breaking here. The idea of nature linking with female energy to topple a hostile man has also been done before, most recently in Coralie Fargeat’s brilliant Revenge. Just replace the desert with the forest in this case.
What a year it’s been. From the pandemic, to the U.S. election that felt like it was 10 years long, this was a hard year. The horror genre, meanwhile, continued to have resounding success and always does best during periods of anxiety. The Invisible Man posted major box office numbers. “Lovecraft County” and “The Haunting of Bly Manor” were huge hits on their respective streaming services, and the little indie film Host reinvented the found footage genre for the Zoom/pandemic age, much in the way that The Blair Witch Project rewrote the rules of the genre in 1999.
Before I offer my list, let me note one trendline that I noticed this year. OLD IS BACK. What do I mean by this? Well, H.P. Lovecraft is huge again. “Lovecraft Country,” based on Matt Ruff’s novel, is one example. Even in my creative writing classes, I have more and more students writing Lovecraft-like stories with otherwordly monsters and an indifferent universe. This year’s first big horror flick was Underwater, an aquatic film that rips off both Alien and the big guy himself, Cthulhu. The underwater scenes are as bleak and hopeless as the worlds in Lovecraft’s stories.
Further, there’s been a return to classic Gothic films/books. “The Haunting of Bly Manor” is a contemporary take on Henry James’ stories, mostly The Turn of the Screw. The Invisible Man reinvented the H.G. Wells’ monster and had so much success that Universal now plans to reboot other classic monsters. Instead of a dark universe, they’re planning individual films, hoping to replicate the success The Invisible Man. We’ll probably be seeing the Gil-man, Wolfman, Frankenstein, and the Bride back on the big screen at some point.
Now, on to the list! Unlike past years, these are not numbered. I can’t pick a specific favorite film.
The Lodge (Directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala)
If you thought Franz and Fiala’s Goodnight, Mommy (2014) was brutal, especially its ending, then The Lodge may be too much. There’s nothing pleasant in the film. Nothing. No humor. No quips. This entire movie feels claustrophobic and frigid. After a father abruptly departs for work, his girlfriend, Grace (Riley Keough), is left alone with his two children. A blizzard traps her in the remote cabin with the kids, where she’s haunted by the past and religious fanaticism. I saw this film in February when it was released in theaters, and boy, did that mid-winter night feel so much colder after viewing this.
Swallow (Directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis)
This is a quiet little indie flick and one of a few films released by IFC that made my list. They had a very good year from a horror perspective. This film reminds me a lot of Rosemary’s Baby. Everyone thinks that they know what’s best for Hunter (Haley Bennett). The men want to control her, especially her hubby, Richie (Austin Stowell). So, she takes to swallowing objects, everything from a thumbtack to a marble, and in an odd way, it gives her some agency. (Read my review of Swallow for HorrOrigins). The conversations and break down of communication between Hunter and Richie are some of the most memorable scenes I’ve watched all year.
The Vast of Night (Directed by Andrew Patterson)
I can’t say enough about this film and how inventive it is. It’s a story about UFOs that’s all about the storytelling, using the technology from the 1950s, especially radio broadcasts, to spin its spooky narrative. You don’t even really see the bright lights or little green men. You don’t need to. Everything is relayed through the hair-raising dialogue and storytelling. But more so, the film is about two people, Fay (Sierra McCormick) and Everett (Jake Horowitz), who want to escape their small town. They dream of something bigger, and they get swept up in something much larger than themselves. (Read my review of The Vast of Night for Signal Horizon Magazine).
The Invisible Man (Directed by Leigh Whannel)
Director Leigh Whannel’s stock has really been rising within the horror community. After creating Saw with James Wan, Whannel’s career didn’t take off the way that Wan’s did, but then The Invisible Man happened this year, a major box office hit and collaboration between Blumhouse and Universal Studios. The film rewrote Wells’ monster and made him a metaphor for domestic abuse. The film is terrifying, bolstered by Elisabeth Moss’ harrowing performance. After the film’s massive success, Universal green-lit a slew of Universal Monsters reboots. COVID has delayed filming schedules, but there will be plenty more classic monsters in the coming years. Whannell, meanwhile, signed a two-picture, first-look deal with Blumhouse directly after the film’s release. (Read my review of The Invisible Man for Signal Horizon Magazine).
The Wretched (Directed by Drew and Brett Pierce)
I’m as intrigued by the story of The Wretched as I am by the film itself. This movie was #1 at the box office a few weeks in a row, thanks to IFC’s wise decision to screen it a drive-ins. This indie film became a major hit! It’s a positive story from the pandemic year. Also, this movie is just a lot of fun. It’s a throw-back to 80s films and practical effects with a few Hitchcock references thrown in. The witch also looks really, really damn cool. (Read my review of The Wretched for Signal Horizon Magazine. Read my interview with the directors for HorrOrigins).
The Wolf of Snow Hollow (Directed by/Written by/Starring Jim Cummings)
When was the last time we had a really good werewolf movie? Ginger Snaps (2000)is the last one that comes to mind for me. The Wolf of Snow Hollow is a thoroughly enjoyable werewolf flick, but at the center of it is a family drama. The lead, John Marshell (Cummings), is an officer in a small Utah town. Oh, and he’s an alcoholic. His life is frayed. His wife divorced him, and the stress of trying to solve the town’s murders may push him over the edge at any moment. The film has SO much heart, humor, and stellar cinematography. It also makes for a good holiday film with its snowy setting and Christmas music playing in the background. (Read my review for HorrOrigins).
La Llorona (Directed by Jayro Bustamante)
If you are a horror fan, then you need to subscribe to the streaming service Shudder. Period. Year after year, they put out some of the best international and domestic films in the genre. La Llorona is one of the films they released this year, and it feels SO important, especially in the context of right-wing populism’s rise internationally over the last few years. In Guatemala, Alma is murdered with her children during a military attack. Thirty years later, the general who ordered the genocide is found not guilty, and Alma comes back to the world of the living to torment Gen. Enrique. This film is so haunting, especially in its portrayal of genocide and how those ghosts impact the present. This film is also a warning about strong men and how a country can collapse under authoritarian rule.
Relic (Directed by Natalie Erika James)
This is the final IFC film on my list. Few films recently have moved me as much as Relic, a story about dementia and a family’s struggles in dealing with the matriarch’s decline. Yes, there are scary scenes in this, but the film is more about witnessing a family member’s ailing mental health and being helpless to stop it. The house becomes a metaphor for a ravaged mind. The ending is one of the most poetic that I’ve seen in a while. I can’t wait to see what James does next. (Read my review of Relic for HorrOrigins).
His House (Directed by Remi Weekes)
Netflix’s horror selection is REALLY hit or miss, but then along comes a film like His House that totally reinvents the haunted house genre to tell the story of a refugee couple who flees war-torn Sudan. This film is creepy and atmospheric, but its real importance lies in the story that it has to tell.
Blood Quantum (Directed by Jeff Barnaby)
Once again, Shudder has more than one entry on my best-of, year-end list. Blood Quantum is important for SO many reasons. It’s directed by a Native filmmaker and features an all-Native cast. It totally rewrites the zombie genre to tell a story about erasure, survival, and reclaiming history. Like George A. Romero before him, Barnaby understands why zombies work so well as social metaphors. Oh, and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable film with lots of gore, too. Before I say anymore about this one, just go watch it, please.
Runner-ups and Honorable Mentions:Host, Shirley, Becky, The Devil to Pay, The Beach House, Color Out of Space
Let’s hope that next year is an easier year for all of us. Maybe we’ll finally get Nia DaCosta’s Candyman reboot in theaters and Halloween Kills by next October. Be safe everyone!
Here’s a piece of advice if you decide to cue up the Castle Freak remake on Shudder. Do NOT expect it to resemble the 1995 Stuart Gordon film. It’s not that. Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton are no where to be found on the cast list, though Crampton did produce the remake. This is a different film, one that leans heavily into Lovecraftian elements, especially in the second half. That’s probably the remake’s biggest flaw. It’s uneven in its execution. At first, like the original film, it feels like a Gothic tale about a hideous creature lurking in a castle, but then it becomes a full-on bonkers Lovecraft story, complete with the Old Ones and those who worship them.
Written by Kathy Charles and directed by Tate Steinseik, Castle Freak is more a reimagining than a remake. It takes some general elements of the plot, but even the characters are changed around. In the original, an American family (Combs, Crampton, and Jessica Dollarhide), inherit an Italian castle, complete with the monster. Their daughter is blind and isn’t initially terrified by the creature. In the new film, her part is given to Rebecca Whateley (Clair Catherine), who is older and inherits the castle. She and her boyfriend, John (Jake Horowitz), are the film’s leads.
As mentioned, the first half of the film leans into the Gothic tropes and atmosphere, with exterior shots of the castle’s spires and long walls filling the frames, dwarfing Rebecca and Marku (Genti Kame), who is in charge of handing the castle over to Rebecca. The interior shots are generally shadowy and feature long hallways and stone walls, which the monster hides behind, spying on Rebecca and John, even when they have sex. I could have done without some of the creature’s reactions and perversion. They’re just… well…. gross.
The past also haunts the present, specifically the story of Rebecca’s mom, who killed herself through self-flagellation. Rebecca initially spends her time exploring the castle with John and discovering her mom’s possessions, including her red robe. John and Rebecca butt heads about the past and its value. She wants to piece together her mom’s story, while he only cares about selling the castle and everything in it, pocketing the profits. At one point, he even screams that it’s “his castle!” In another scene, he refers to the artifacts they find as “old religious crap.” Further, the past manifests itself in a series of violent dreams in which Rebecca relives the torment that her mom faced. When she asks John basic questions, like the color of her mom’s robe, he lies to her. He makes for a good villain, often more so than the castle freak. He uses Rebecca’s inheritance to make himself wealthy.
I wish that the film toyed with the Gothic elements more. The remake’s first half is the strongest because it does just this and explores Rebecca’s character and her mother’s tragedy. The storyline is tight. The rest of the film, however, is all about the Lovecraft mythos. To be fair, Castle Freak is loosely based on his story “The Outsider,” but the film becomes so outlandish that it offsets the more serious tone of the first half. Suddenly, there are worshippers of the Old Ones and characters that run around screaming “Yog-Sothoth!” It becomes laugh out loud funny, and it’s unclear if that was the intent. The ending is grotesque, but hey, maybe Lovecraft fans will enjoy it.
As for the special effects, they might be the best part of the film. Steinseik is a SFX artist, and the creature looks good. So do some of the Lovecraftian monsters.
Overall, there are a few scenes in Castle Freak that are worth a watch, but overall, it’s pretty forgettable. Its tone is all over the place and the monster’s sexual sadistic streak is too much. Stick to the 1995 film.
When I think about my favorite horror films of 2020, I think about how heavy they are. These include Relic, a film about dementia, The Invisible Man, a metaphor for domestic abuse, and His House, a haunted house story about the refugee crisis. Sure, 2020 had some lighter horror cinema, like The Wretched and The Vast of Night, but the heavyweights were a tough watch mentally. Thank god for Freaky, directed and co-written by Christopher Landon (Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2U). Landon is quickly becoming the new king of horror-comedies. Freaky is a clever film that has plenty of nods to iconic slashers, but it’s also a fun romp that borrows the premise of Freaky Friday and turns it on its head, making for a bloody good time.
The film stars Millie (Kathryn Newton), a shy teen bullied by her peers. The hideous sweaters that her mom buys for her with an employee discount don’t help. Millie isn’t rich or popular. She lost her dad about a year ago, and fearing more loss, her mom doesn’t want her to attend college out of the area. Millie is a relatable character, an outcast trying to navigate high school. Before we meet her, though, we’re introduced to the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn). Freaky’s first 15 minutes play out like the opening of a Friday the 13th. Kids sit around a bonfire, recounting stories about the killer. Of course, he shows up minutes later, donning what looks like a Jason Voorhees knock-off mask. He slashes and dices victims one by one. He even tilts his head to the side like Michael Myers to study his work. The film’s opening 15 minutes are some of the most enjoyable I’ve seen in the genre all year. The gore is as outlandish as the teens’ reactions once the Butcher shows up.
After a football game, Millie encounters the Butcher as she waits for someone to pick her up. He stabs her with an ancient dagger that he stole. Cue the storm clouds, ancient cruse, and Freaky Friday-like body swap.
From there, the film grows more entertaining. Seeing Vaughn act like a teenage girl, including trying to make out with Millie’s crush in the backseat of a car, is a hoot. Further, post-body swap, Millie/the Butcher grows a sense of agency. She wears a striking leather coat, pulls her hair back in a blond pony tail, and even tells a jock that his touch makes her sex dry up like sandpaper. Newton’s performance, much like Vaughn’s, deserves a lot of credit. Watching her take what she wants with the spirit of the Butcher inside her is a lot of fun. She gets back at everyone who bullied her. Besides, how often do we see a female teenager as the killer in a slasher film? It’s a great reversal.
The supporting cast deserves accolades, too. Landon’s characters are diverse and well-developed. Nyla (Celeste O’Connor), Millie’s best friend, doesn’t exist in the story to just serve the white protagonist. She has her own sense of agency and puts up several road blocks to thwart the Butcher’s plans. Millie’s other best friend, Josh (Misha Osherovich), is an assertive and funny gay character. He steals the show in several scenes. Even Millie’s mom, Coral (Katie Finneran), grows more sympathetic the more that you learn about her and why she turns to the bottle. She’s grieving, and her children are all she has left. There is some family drama in the film, but it never bogs down the general levity.
Further, the film’s cinematography and colors are bright and match the film’s humor. Freaky generally forgoes the usual shadowy frames of horror film. It’s a nice contrast from other slashers, and like Happy Death Day, it’s another way that Landon toys with and reverses some of our expectations.
Freaky is the horror-comedy that we need after such a tough year. It’s a great reversal of the slasher tropes that also shows Landon’s love for the genre. It’ll make you laugh and give you a protagonist that you can root for. Both Vaughn and Newton excel in their respective roles, especially once the body swap happens.
I get a lot of screeners. There are often too many to go through, but I’ve been impressed by how many great horror films IFC Midnight has put out in the last few years. The company really made a name for itself with The Babadook, but this year, they’ve been putting out really quality content, like Swallow and Relic, two of my favorite films of 2020. What these films have in common is that they’re female-centric. All of them deal with issues that women face, be it abusive relationships, motherhood, or family dynamics.
Their latest film, Kindred, is set in the UK and focuses on the plight of Charlotte (Tamara Lawrance), who finds out she’s pregnant about 15 minutes into the film. Before she knows it, her boyfriend’s family, especially the sinister matriarch, Margaret (Fiona Shaw), tries to strip her of her agency. She has no say in whether or not she should even have the baby, or if she has the baby, how to raise the child. The film is about gaslighting and negative stereotypes women STILL have to fight against. Charlotte is labeled mad and ill more than once, for instance. It feels so relevant, when you consider what’s happened globally and the backlash against women’s right. Poland, for instance, recently passed a nationwide abortion ban, which has only been delayed because of mass protests. Abortion rights in the U.S., meanwhile, face a dire threat, now that the SCOTUS has a far-right 6-3 majority.
I was struck by how unnerving Kindred is, how all the monsters are human, and how no one, and I mean NO ONE will listen to the female protagonist. It’s an incredibly relevant film that I recommend.
For more on the film, you can check out my full review for HorrOrigins. The film is now streaming On Demand.
Few films in the Halloween franchise are as maligned as Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995), well, other than Halloween: Resurrection (2002) or maybe Rob Zombie’s two entries. The sixth entry, which also marked the beginning of Dimension films, is weird, for sure. It includes a cult that tries to control Michael Myers, and it attempts to tie up the loose ends of the woeful Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989), which underperformed at the box office to the point that it took six years to make another sequel. Hear me out, however. Halloween 6 is a DECENT installment. It makes Michael Myers scary again. It has teenagers that are likeable, and director Joe Chappelle’s direction has a beautiful Gothic aesthetic.
The film picks up some years after Halloween 5’s conclusion. Michael’s niece, Jamie Lloyd (J.C. Brandy), is pregnant, and based on the opening, we can assume she’s carrying Michael’s seed. She’s strapped to a table, surrounded by robe-cladded monsters. Are they Satanists? Who knows exactly! I said the film is weird. A nurse helps Jamie escape, but it doesn’t take long before Myers tracks her down and kills her. Her death is one of the most brutal takes in the Halloween franchise. The scene is important for a few reasons. It shows that the franchise is done with the Jamie storyline of the previous two installments. She’s killed off in about 15 minutes. Further, her death sets the tone for Michael’s kills for the rest of the movie. They’re bloody and gruesome. Additionally, the aesthetic of the shot is stunning in a Gothic kind of way. Rain pounds outside the barn where Jamie hides. Thunder cracks. Michael finds her and approaches from the shadows. There’s a blue light cast on him, not too dissimilar from Carpenter’s shots in the original film.
The rest of the film has several other nods to Gothic horror films. Two of the film’s most likeable teens, Beth (Mariah O’Brien) and Tim (Keith Bogart), dress up as The Bride and Monster for Halloween. In one of the film’s last sequences, the film’s final girl of sorts, Kara Strode (Marianne Hagan), wears a long white robe similar to the one that Elsa Lanchester wore as The Bride.
Myers’ house, meanwhile, is occupied by Kara’s family, but it’s the neighborhood spookhouse. It LOOKs run down and dilapidated, and kids mount cardboard cutouts of Michael Myers. It is a looming presence in the film, something that continues drawing Michael back to Haddonfield, a place that’s familiar to him. In fact, some of the best kills happen in the house, and one echoes P.J. Soles’ death in the original.
It’s impossible to talk about the sixth installment without mentioning two of its main characters, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) in his final performance and Tommy Doyle, played by Paul Rudd in his FIRST major performance. Pleasence really leans into the mad aspects of the character, thus furthering the film’s Gothic underpinnings. At the start of the film, he’s retired, hauled up in a cabin, working on a book. His burn scars from the second film’s conclusion are even more grotesque. He spends much of the film chasing Myers one last time, while ranting about all the years he spent trying to understand “evil.”
Doyle is one of the film’s most interesting characters. His trauma from being terrorized as a kid in the first film manifests itself into an obsession. He has pictures of Myers tacked up in his bedroom. He peers through a telescope at his neighbors, and he rarely smiles. Loomis has always been obsessed with Myers. Doyle, however, takes it to another level. It consumes him, and Rudd does a good job in the role.
Lastly, and this is a BIG spoiler alert, the film corrects the mistakes of the previous installment. In one of the bloodiest scenes, Michael kills off every single member of the cult, thus erasing that absurd ending of part five. You can’t help but cheer when he does this. It’s an attempt to right the franchise going forward; unfortunately, the next sequel, just might be the WORST Halloween of the bunch.
There are plenty of other reasons to watch Halloween 6. I already mentioned the kills. The film’s blue and dark tones are a visual delight, too. The cinematography will put you in just the right kind of mood. And thankfully, there is NO character as annoying as Halloween 5’s Tina (Wendy Kaplan).
The Curse of Michael Meyers has a lot of flaws, for sure. Most of those have to do with the silly storyline about a cult that the previous installment introduced. Curse does its best to right these wrongs, and the result is a decent sequel, nearly 20 years after the original film. At the very least, watch the film for its cinematography, Gothic aesthetic, decent kills, and Paul Rudd’s first big film gig.